Seasoned Performer Clark Brings ‘Sunset' to Strand
by Mike Morgan
The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News

February 25, 2000

Petula Clark remembers asking Trevor Nunn why he wanted her to play Norma Desmond in his West End production of “Sunset Boulevard.”

The year was 1995, and Clark had just finished a yearlong tour of “Blood Brothers” when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Nunn offered her the role.

The show had already caused a sensation since its 1993 opening in London with Patti LuPone, followed by Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige in the West End, Glenn Close in Los Angeles and New York and Buckley on the West End and Broadway.

“I remember asking him, first of all, why he wanted me to do it,” Clark said by telephone, “because I'm so different to anyone who has played it before, and what he thought that I would bring to it. And he said ‘What I want you to bring to it, and what you will bring to it' – because it's Trevor Nunn – ‘is humor and vulnerability.”'

Clark eventually took the role and began performances in September 1995 in London. She stayed for nearly two years and is now on tour with the show. It opens at The Palace Theater in Myrtle Beach on Tuesday.

Clark said she took Nunn's advice.

“I think he was right, and so that is the way I play her,” she said.

Desmond is a famous role in a famous story. Based on Billy Wilder's 1950 film, the musical, adapted by Webber, writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton and director Nunn, is a cautionary tale about fame, loss, pride and the violence that can erupt when time outruns passion. The story is told by Joe Gillis, a disillusioned Hollywood writer who meets Desmond, an aging relic cloistered in a rotting mansion, watching her films over and over as she slips further into madness.

She hires Gillis to edit the screenplay she's written for an imagined comeback and quickly draws him into her delusional world. Desmond brings devastation to those around her and accolades to those who have played her.

“She's so bizarre,” Clark said. “The problem with playing her is to somehow find something in her that an audience can latch onto apart from observing her.”

Neither is she a sympathetic character. Desmond, after all, still believes she is a big star, even though the world has moved far beyond her. She is deluded, Clark said, “but that doesn't make her a monster.”

Desmond's great sadness is in her choice to continue living in a world that no longer exists, Clark said.

She knows something of the vagaries of choice. A star since she began singing at 6 years old, Clark has long been a favorite in Europe and America, with dozens of hit records (“Downtown,” “Don't Sleep in the Subway”), a thriving stage career and movie roles in classics such as “Finian's Rainbow” and “Good-Bye, Mr. Chips.”

For many of her more than 50 years of show business, she has been a star and is still busy. The current tour is scheduled to last until May and may go longer, though she also is working on a new one-woman show about her career.

This production of “Sunset Boulevard,” directed by Susan Schulman, is substantially the same as the London show, Clark said, though the emphasis has shifted from the elaborate stage settings to the characters and the story line.

That's as it should be, she said. Theater, for all its modern technological trappings such as hydraulic lifts and amplification, is still about communication between living people.

“It's basically so human, you know?” she said. “It's about a group of people called an audience, watching another group of people called a cast and performing. That is pretty basic.”

“Sunset Boulevard” starring Petula Clark The Palace Theater, Broadway at the Beach, U.S. 17 Bypass at 21st Avenue North, Myrtle Beach 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and March 3-4, 2 p.m. Wednesday and March 4-5 Ages 13 and older $50, $47.85, $39.28; ages 12 and younger $50, $42.45, $34.95 448-0588 or 1-800-905-4228